Story Failure: Why We ‘Lose it’ in High Stress Environments, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part of both Lenten Reflections series and ongoing series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

The stories, beliefs and strategies we develop to survive life’s most painful experiences inevitably fail us in high stress environments. The question is, why?

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

“People who are caught up in the pursuit of excellence are particularly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.” – Psychologist Archibald D. Hart

Tabloids love it when  a celebrity ‘lose it’ in public. Nothing sells quite as well a fallen “hero.’ And fortunately for the tabloids, losing it is a common occurrence. In recent years Quentin Tarantino, Billy Bob Thornton, Mel Gibson, Justin Bieber, Brittany Spears, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, Kanye West have each provided ample fodder to guarantee tabloid clicks stay high.

Still, the truth is, sooner or later, everyone loses it. Only most of us don’t have paparazzi stalking us night and day to chronicle our worst moments. What if we did? High stress environments tend to bring out the worst in us, whether you’re a filmmakers, academic, businesswoman, salesman, or church leader. The question is why?

One explanation is the worldview concept of ‘story failure.’ A famous episode from the life of Jesus highlights just how easy it is for even the most earnest spiritual seeker to lose it and why it happens so easily.

 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—really only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42)

 

A Tale of Two Spiritualities

Mary seizes the opportunity to cherish Jesus’ every word, despite village and sibling pressure to the contrary. (Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Vermeer, 1655)

Having such a great “celebrity” under your roof is a great honor, but it also carries tremendous responsibility. It places the reputation of the entire village squarely on the shoulders of these two apparently unmarried women. The eyes of every (married) homemaker in town bears down on them to scrutinize the quality of the hospitality they provide.

It is a high stress environment to say the least. And as the “snake” of the dinner hour grew closer and closer, the difference between Mary and Martha’s responses to stress begin to emerge.

Mary immediately seizes the opportunity of having Jesus in her living room. In other settings she would have to defer to the cultural practice of “men only” preferred seating. But they’re in her house now. Mary pushes past the other guests, and plops herself down at her master’s feet. She wants to catch very word that falls from his lips.

Story Failure

Martha is no less committed to Jesus. However, her way of showing her commitment reveals the presence of a profound story failure functioning in her life. We don’t know why an unmarried Martha is running her own household while caring for her younger siblings,[1] but it is a very unusual living situation in the first century Jewish world. It almost certainly involves difficult and painful circumstances. The untimely death of her parents, her husband, and perhaps Mary’s husband as well are all likely explanations.[2] No matter how you cut it, it is not a happy story and it is a story that appears to have shaped her inner life.

We don’t know all the false beliefs and strategies Martha has (unconsciously) constructed on her painful life story, but a few are evident in her words and actions in this passage. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.) First, we can infer from her accusation that Jesus doesn’t care that her value and belief system seems to include hidden creeds such as: “Nobody cares as much as I do,” or perhaps, “Trust no one but yourself.” Second, we can also infer from her attempt to order Jesus around that her personal rule of life is to always stay in control.  And of course, her society’s ‘scripts’ or memes for how to run a household reinforce some of her worldview. (See, Crash Goes the Worldview: Why Character Transformation Requires Changing Scripts.)

Martha loses it.(Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, 1580)

This underlying micro-worldview may have helped Martha successfully navigate life in the past, but it fails her altogether in the high stress environment of hosting Israel’s hottest celebrity rabbi. Empowered by her unwavering (and probably unconscious) belief in her life story, Martha starts comforting herself with her preferred coping mechanisms. She knows that the evening is descending into chaos and that no one else cares as much as she does. She knows what must be done and is more than ready to demand obedience to her will. If she could only get her lazy sister’s attention then she could give Mary a piece of her mind and set things right. But her enrapt sister simply won’t take her eyes off that darn rabbi.

Like an adrenaline-charged mouse, her self-comforting behaviors begin winding her soul tighter and tighter with each passing moment.  Luke tells us that all Martha accomplishes with her adrenaline rush is becoming worried and upset. However, those English words simply don’t carry enough weight to adequately describe her internal state. In the original Greek language, the word “worried” carries the idea of being pulled in many different directions at once. Like a loaf of bread thrown into a gaggle of geese, Martha’s soul careens from one concern to the next—the bread, the village busybody’s stare, the soup, her sister’s absence, the tableware, Jesus’ presence, the wine, the disciple’s appetites—until little pieces of her soul begin to tear away.

The word “upset” is even more instructive. It literally means that her “soul is in an uproar.” Anyone who has ever lived in a high stress environment knows exactly what that phrase describes.  It is that feeling of a having an angry toddler or an out of control teenager in your soul. And it is the very state of being that now has Martha squarely in its jaws.

Two Phases of Losing It

It is only a matter of time until they begin to manifest in her relationships. Her anger boils to overflowing until she simply has to act.

In short, Martha loses it …on JESUS!

Even the most fervent filmmaker, professor, or pastor can quickly lose their connection to God in a high stress environment.
Even the most fervent filmmaker, professor, or pastor can quickly lose their connection to God in a high stress environment.

First, she transfers her self-comforting lie—“no one cares as much as I do”—onto Jesus. She pushes her way to the front of the room, not to sit at Jesus feet, but to yell at him. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?”

Second, she employs her self-comforting take-charge life-strategy to the Lord of the universe. Instead of sitting at Jesus feet and listening to what he has to say, Martha is now the one issuing the orders. “Tell her to come help me!” she commands.

Like everyone who loses it, Martha’s “Adrenaline Induced Psychosis” has only served to bring out the worst in her. Like a high-tempered filmmaker who “loses it” on set, a passive-aggressive academic who sabotages a rival’s tenure review, or the ever-smiling pastor who browbeats his family at home, her soul-deadening strategy has failed the test of thriving in a high stress environment.

We all develop stories we tell ourselves about life, God and others to help us cope with the pain of living in a fallen world. These unconscious narratives form the foundation of a false worldview from which we develop specific strategies to comfort ourselves from past wounds and protect ourselves from further harm.

The bad news is that high stress environments bring these lies and strategies to the surface like silver in the crucible. Veins coursing with adrenaline, our fight or flight reflex kicks in and we compulsively turn to the comfort and/or protect ourself like that mouse in a snake cage.  The results are never good.

The good news is that this same crucible makes our largely unconscious worldview visible. Once we’re aware of the false story we are living we can begin address them in our day-to-day lives. Just listen to your own “self-talk” the next time you’re in a high stress environment and you will begin to piece together some of the false story you are living. (More on this in future posts.)

A Prescription for Adrenaline Induced Psychosis

The better news it that it is possible to follow Jesus into a way of life that exposes these lies and strategies before they destroy us. We can develop a personalized plan of spiritual disciplines to help identify, replace the specific lies with truth, and our unique self-defeating strategies with new life-giving ones. (More on this later as well.)

Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story.

Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story. Such practices renew our minds, transform our hearts, and better align our worldview with God’s great story of love and redemption.

Like Jesus, we can even arm ourselves with an arsenal of specific Scriptural truths and character-strengthening practices that prepare us to parry the fiery darts of the evil one, and overcome the specific temptations where we are most vulnerable.

Some of the most foundational truths of the worldview shift  everyone requires to thrive spiritually in a high stress environment are found in Jesus’ response to Mary’s “losing it’ episode. One one level they are specific to Martha’s particular lies and strategies. On another level, they apply to all of us.

The first truth is that God is not angry at us when we ‘lose it.” Instead, he is full of compassion. He begins his response with the double use of her name—“Martha, Martha”—a cultural idiom for endearment. It is certainly not the reaction Martha anticipated.  In fact, his gentle touch completely disarms her. Suddenly becoming self-aware of the scene she is causing in front of the very people she is trying to impress, (trust me, I’ve been there), her indignation drains from her face like a deflated balloon.

For the first time Martha looks into Jesus’ eyes. Instead of finding the anger/compliance response her take-charge strategy has produced in the past, she finds something altogether different. Jesus meets her bullying with unadulterated compassion.

He has been ready for this moment. He knows her story better then she does.  With a knowing smile, Jesus shakes his head at his zealous follower and replies:

“You are worried and upset about so many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”

This is the second truth Jesus wants Martha (and us) to grasp–no one can take away your connection to God, but you. Like Curly’s advise to Billy Crystal in City Slickers, only one thing is really necessary. Do whatever it takes to stay connected to Jesus—those practices that help you live your life “sitting at his feet and listening to what he says.”—and everything else will take care of itself.

Double-Knowledge. The Two Steps Forward

This means than learning to thrive in high stress environments involves at least two different processes.

First, we need to discover which spiritual disciplines best help us stay connected to God in the midst of the battle. This is a very personalized process involving a great deal of trial and error (and, yes, failure.)  We’ll come back to this theme later.

Second, we need to go on the journey of discovering WHY we keep blowing up and self-sabotaging.  Spiritual directors through the centuries have discerned what they came to call the principle of double-knowledge: We can only know God as well as we know ourselves, but we can only know ourselves as well as we know God. I know that sounds like a Catch-22. But believe me, it’s not. Like the right and the left pedals of a bicycle we need to keep pumping both sides of this process to get anywhere.   Only as we get to know God and his love will will begin to understand our own story better. And only as we come to know our own story better, will we become more open to the love of God.

Next Week:
Casablanca and the Transforming Love of God
See Also
Fight Club: Why Our Unreliable Narrator is Always Getting Us Into Trouble
 The Volcano in Your Backyard: The Micro-Worldview of a Honeymoon from Hell

 


[1] Martha is always mentioned first, so she is most likely the older of the two. It was their younger brother Lazarus who Jesus raised from the dead (John 11).

[2] It is also possible that Martha and Mary’s singleness is deliberate. Scholars note that a Jewish apocalyptic sect known as the Essenes (who may have helped train John the Baptist) had a strong presence in Bethany and encouraged celibacy. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus could have been older members of this community rather than younger widows and/or orphans. Still, if their singleness is intentional, that makes it highly unusual and stressful in its own way as well.

 

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Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections

Part IV of 2017 Lenten Series: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python
The inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life, or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

by Gary David Stratton 

Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her own children.
Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley.

If by some miracle of time-travel you could suddenly transport 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards into the audience of your local cineplex tonight, he might very well declare the entire motion picture industry a work of witchcraft! (And he may very well be right.) Yet, a careful reading of America’s greatest theologian’s most important work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, reveals insight into both the craft of screenwriting and the purpose of Lent. Both point to the importance of paying attention to “inciting events.”

The Inciting Event

Whether in real life or a work of fiction, most stories begin with a hero[1] pursuing largely self-centered goals designed to help them survive in their current circumstances. In Gladiator (2000) Maximus just wants to go home to his family and farm. In Star Wars (1977) Luke Skywalker desires only to get off the planet to be with his friends at school. Erin Brockovich (2000) seeks nothing more than a salaried job to feed her kids. Each lacks both the understanding and the desire to pursue anything beyond the struggles of their day-to-day life.

Then something happens; something screenwriters refer to as the inciting event. Suddenly, a new and bigger story crashes in upon the hero’s carefully constructed world. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story, “At the beginning of the story, when weakness and need are being established, the hero is typically paralyzed in some way. You need some kind of event to jump-start the hero out of his paralysis and force him to act.”[2] Luke accidentally triggers a hidden distress video in the memory of a droid. Erin Brokovich discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is poisoning Hinkley’s small town water supply.  Caesar unexpectedly commissions Maximus as protector of Rome in order to re-establish a true Republic. In each case, the inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

The entire story turns when (and only when) the hero makes this difficult choice. In fact, we don’t even have a story without such a decision. For instance, in The Blind Side (2009) hundreds of “Christian” parents drove past homeless teenager Michael Oher one cold November evening. Any one of them could have stopped to help. Only one did. Everyone faced the same event, yet only Leigh Anne Tuohy was incited by it. We tell her story because she acted.[3] This is why most screenwriters refer to the hero’s decision to act in response to the inciting event as plot point one.  Why? Because without that decision you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story at all.

Affections

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes helpful. According to Edwards, our soul is composed of two primary parts: our mind (including both our perceptions and our understanding of those perceptions), and our heart. Our heart is that aspect of our inner being that attracts us toward some people, ideas, or actions and repels us from other people, ideas, and actions.

When our heart’s attraction towards a particular person, idea, or action is particularly strong, Edwards labels these powerful inclinations as our affections. To Edwards, affections are “the moving springs in all the affairs of life, which engage men in all their pursuits; and especially in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigour.”[4] They are the hidden internal reasons why we choose to love some people and not others, to believe some ideas and not others, and take some actions but not others.

Victory in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm, until Caesar's inciting event changes everything.
With victory for the empire in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm . . . until Caesar’s inciting event changes everything.

This makes our affections an extremely important element of any great story. When the hero answers their story question in the affirmative it reveals something deeper in the their soul than any casual observer could notice. Something in Erin Brokovich (compassion? justice?) compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her children (for whom she originally took the job.) Something in Maximus (duty? nobility?) drives him to accept Caesar’s commission, even though it means delaying a comfortable retirement with his wife and son.

Something in the inciting event reveals the hero’s genuine affections. While this single experience never completely transforms the hero–numerous temptations to give up or turn back will come later–something in the inciting event causes them to take their first step of their journey away from a mere longing for comfort and convenience and into something deeper. They want something more and are willing to take action to pursue it.

Awakening or Transformation?

This motivating drive could be an affection that was always present, but “woke up” only when confronted with the inciting event. For instance, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo’s inciting event is an unexpected party of singing Dwarves inviting him to join their quest:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”[5]

It takes a bit no longer for him to act, but soon he is running down the road without so much as a handkerchief in his pocket.

Other times, something in the inciting event itself changes the hero’s heart. For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a chance encounter with an alien spacecraft implants Roy Neary with both vivid images of The Devils Tower in Wyoming as well as the insatiable desire to go there.[6] In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, God not only incites Moses to return to Egypt to free his people, he transforms Moses’ affections (and even his appearance) as well.[7]  Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, is perhaps the ultimate inciting event in the New Testament. His zeal for God is both revealed and transformed by the voice from heaven.

In both inciting event types the hero is confronted with a choice before the story can even begin. As über screenwriting guru Robert McKee declares:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

Obviously, the inciting event is only the beginning of this revelation and transformation, but it is crucial to writing (and living) a great story.

We Are What We Do

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes interesting not only for screenwriters, but for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Edwards rejects the commonly held notion that our affections and our will are two separate components of our inner being, so that our affections might want one thing, but our will chooses another. Not so, says America’s greatest theologian. “Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the inclination, without some effect upon the body…”[8] In other words, while we often profess belief in one direction and act in another, or feel we ought to act one way and then do the opposite, our actions alone reveal the true affections of our heart and mind. We do what we love.

Edwards therefore insists that genuine faith . .

“[C]onsists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart. That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged.”[9]

Lenten Examination

"Then something Tookish woke up inside him..."
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him…”

This is why Lent can be so transformative. The season is designed to help us examine the gap between our professed faith and our lived belief, between our creed and our lifestyle, between the things we tell ourselves we are passionate about and our true motivations revealed by our actions. Jesus instructed his followers, “You will know them by their fruits.”[10] And Edwards reminds us that Jesus viewed most important fruit as a love of God expressed in sacrificial service on behalf of others. “This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you… For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give us life for others.”[11]

The practice of (and not the mere tip of the cap to) sacrificial service reveals the presence of the greatest and highest affection of all: love of God and others for God’s sake. Why? Because much of what passes for religion seems motivated by little more than a self-centered desire to survive in our current circumstances. However, the decision to give up your life in sacrificial service of others is rarely motivated by anything except genuine spiritual affections. In essence, Edwards is saying, if you want to see who the true heroes are around you, don’t look for the most religious, or the most famous, or the most published. Look for those who love

Lent then is a season for honestly asking myself if I might be missing inciting events to love and serve that are happening all around me: a homeless teenager who needs shelter, a town that needs an advocate, a political system that needs reforming, a social injustice that needs a champion. Perhaps they are more than the mere random events. They could be God’s call to wake up and enter our true story. Our true affections are revealed only in our responses to these inciting events that dare us to ask: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

Any screenwriter could tell you that.

Next: The Volcano in Your Backyard: Micro-Worldviews and the Honeymoon from Hell

 


[1] Or, ‘Main Character,’ as some main characters are clearly not heroic.

[2] 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 276). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition. (2008-10-14).

[3] This is not to say that sometimes a hero requires numerous inciting events to jar them into action. For instance, Luke learning that a beautiful princess needs rescue, that his father was really a Jedi fighter pilot, or even that a Jedi master needs his help, isn’t enough to overcome his earth-bound (er, Tatooine-bound) inertia. It is only after imperial Stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle that he finally decides to go with Obi-wan to Alderaan and, “Learn the ways of the force like my father.”

[4] Edwards, Jonathan (1745) A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (In Three Parts) (Kindle Edition, 2011) Locations 332-333.

[5] The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Mariner books, 2012), p. 83. (Italics mine.)

[6] This same alien transformation motif is also subtly evident in Spielberg’s more famous E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982).

[7] Actually, in this nearly four-hour long epic, one could argue that Moses transformation is the midpoint of the film. However, in the biblical account, Moses’ encounter with THWH at the burning bush is clearly the inciting event for his personal journey at the Exodus itself.

[8] Affections, 270-271.

[9] Ibid., 297-300.

[10] Matthew 7:16

[11] John 15:12, Mark 10:45

Emmy Magazine’s Interview with Kurt Schemper, Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

SERIES INTRO: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

“The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”  -Emmy Award-winning producer, Kurt Schemper

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

Emmy Magazine isn’t the most likely place for insight into spiritual formation.

“A writer for Emmy magazine is on the phone for you.”

At first I thought our PR director was pulling my leg. College professors don’t get calls from Emmy magazine.  Not even when you’re a professor moonlighting as the Executive Director of Act One, a community of Christian entertainment industry professionals seeking to train and equip storytellers to enter mainstream Hollywood.  Even though we had graduates writing, producing, and directing on numerous TV shows and more than a few feature films, the entertainment industry press had ever called our offices before.

Kurt Schemper changed all that.  A producer for A&E’s critically acclaimed reality program, Intervention, Kurt had just become the first Act One graduate to win a prime time Emmy Award. The writer on the phone, Libby Slate, was fascinated by Kurt’s connection to a Hollywood Christian community. But, what really impressed her was how the Act One community had lived out our faith by rallying to aid former staff member Rosario Rodriguez after her gang-related shooting while walking in the tawny L.A. neighborhood Libby called home. (Read story here.)

Libby wanted to know if Emmy could do an article highlighting Kurt and Act One’s unique mission in Hollywood.  Kurt and I readily agreed, and director Korey Scott Pollard (House, Grey’s Anatomy, Monk, Nashville, Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, The Middle, Jack Ryan) signed on to represent the Act One faculty perspective.

Kurt posing with his new hardware.

As Kurt, Korey and I prepared for our interview, Korey pushed for us to be ‘really ready’ to express exactly what we wanted to say. Our conversations turned to how difficult it is to thrive spiritually in Hollywood, and interviewer Libby Slate graciously picked up on this theme.

In the course of our conversations Kurt mentioned that one of his college professors at Judson College encouraged him to pursue his calling to Hollywood by quoting Frederick Buechner:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Kurt’s response was, “My deep gladness is Jesus. The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”

The idea of finding “deep gladness” in Hollywood really resonated with me, especially as I contemplated what a “soul-deadening” place Hollywood can be for many industry insiders. So in my interview, I told Emmy, “We’ve found that the spirituality taught by Jesus is an ideal starting place for guiding industry professionals on a soul-nourishing spiritual journey.”

That language resonated with Emmy readers as well, and soon opened doors all over Hollywood. Now it leads to this new series entitled, “Soul-nourishing Practices for a Soul-deadening world: Finding the Voice of Your Own Gladness in Hollywood and Beyond.”

My hope is that these posts will help filmmakers, educators and other culture makers find their own “deep gladness” through the soul-nurturing practices Jesus taught his first followers over 20 centuries ago. Not mere religious practices targeted at greater self-righteousness, but spiritual practices targeted at nurturing a deeper connection to God.

We officially launched the series earlier, but today I thought you might want to read the original Emmy article. (I couldn’t figure out how to post it directly, so you’ll have to download the article as a pdf.)  Enjoy!

Click to download Emmy Magazine Article PDF

 

NEXT:  Connecting to the Life of God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond – Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Give it a Rest! by Keith Kettenring, PhD

It is in the place of relational intimacy with the Father (like Jesus has) that true rest is experienced and lived.

by Keith Kettenring, PhD • Homestead Retreat House

There are probably few things we do more poorly than relaxing.  When they try, workaholics feel guilty, controllers get anxious, the lazy get bored, fun-lovers become disillusioned, the responsible get uncomfortable and the diligent feel awkward. We’ve got to make it happen; if we don’t who will? We’d rather burn out than rust out. We’ve got to be proactive, hard-working, productive, energetic, and busy. How in the world can we relax when there’s so much to do?

I’m using the word relax. But Jesus, in Matthew 11:28, uses the word “rest.” His word is superior and more satisfactory since it goes to the core of our being – our souls (“you shall find rest for your souls”). Relaxing is primarily a physical thing which humans try to make happen through their own efforts. Rest is an inner serenity, a calm trust that is realized even in the midst of outer turmoil. True rest, Jesus tells us, is a gift given to those who are with Him, accept His yoke, and learn from Him. Therefore, we can experience rest no matter our circumstances, our energy levels, or our productivity.

I’d like to focus on finding rest by “taking his yoke” as an exploration as to why we have such a hard time resting (or relaxing). Typically when a Bible teacher gets to the “yoke” he or she begins explaining what a yoke in Jesus’ day may have looked like and concluding that we, too, are connected (“yoked”) to Jesus so that He guides our lives and shares our burdens. That’s all well and good as far as it goes. Yet there may be something richer and deeper here into which Jesus is inviting us when he says, “take my yoke upon you.” We will find real rest in this richer and deeper place.

Pause a while on the word “my” that Jesus used in designating this yoke. Could it be that Jesus is inviting us into the same intimate relationship he has with the Father? First, he explains that certain truths are hidden from the wise and clever but not to the childlike (11:25-26). Then, he opens the door for us to get a glimpse of his relationship of experiencing life with the Father as the context for helping us understand “his” yoke (11:27). Now, is the perfect time to offer those willing to accept it (the childlike) the invitation to take hold of (enter and embrace fully) the intimate relationship that he has with the Father that He now wants us to share with him. In other words, “my yoke” is the kind of yoke he has with the Father, a yoke that connects them in loving intimacy. Astonishing! You and I are invited to possess an intimate relationship with the Father similar to what Jesus has with Him.

Are you facing turmoil? Are you weighed down by genuine concerns? Are you exhausted from trying to make your marriage, family, job, or ministry work? Are you carrying burdens that are crushing you? Take hold of Jesus’ “yoke,” put it on and learn what it is to be intimate with your Father. Within this deepening intimacy with the Father you will discover fresh ways to manage life’s burdens and weariness.

Does the prospect of intimacy with the Father like Jesus has stir something deep within you? Is that kind of intimacy something your heart and soul longs for? Does the prospect of genuine rest in connection with your Father resonate in your soul? Come to Jesus…his relationship with the Father can be your relationship with the Father…and find rest.

See also:  

 

 

The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of Two-Handed Higher Education

Series Introduction

The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Higher education has played a key role in the church’s training of true two-handed warriors since its earliest days. One could argue that the manner in which Jesus trained his apostles was so consistent with first-century rabbinic educational practices that the church was actually established with a ‘school’ at its very heart. And there is little doubt that the church began establishing more formal schools as early as the First Century when Mark the Evangelist and/or his disciples founded the world’s first ‘Christian College’ in the catechetical school connected to the Roman rhetorical university at Alexandria. Soon, this blending of the Spirit-driven early church with the truth-seeking Greco-Roman liberal arts tradition proved a powerful combination.

"One Athanasius against the world, was in fact, one Christian college against their culture." (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
“One Athanasius against the world,” was in fact, “One Christian college against their culture.” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

College Against Culture

It is difficult to imagine what European civilization might have become without the integrative mindset fostered among the faculty and students of the Alexandrian school, including three of the most influential minds of the Patristic era: Clement, Origen, and Athanasius.  This single educational community provided clear-headed theological reflection and courageous cultural leadership in some of the most significant turning points in early church history.

This was particularly evident in their fourth century battle against the heresy of Arianism. By this time the Alexandrian school had grown into an academic powerhouse with strong secular connections and studies, so much so that Eusebius reports that even nonChristian noblemen entrusted their sons to instruction there. The school became the training ground from which their most famous alumnus, Athanasius, launched his attack against the official Roman endorsement of Arianism. Each time he was rebuffed and even excommunicated at Rome, Athanasius would return to Alexandria for counsel and prayer with the faculty and students of this robust educational community. The common perception that orthodoxy finally prevailed because of Athanasius contra mundum, “One Athanasius against the world,” is far too individualistic an interpretation.  The battle was actually, “One Christian college against their culture.” And the Christian college won.

Over the centuries since, Christian colleges and theological seminaries have often proven significantly more effective than local churches in nurturing faculty and students whose leadership is genuinely transformational. Although God often furthers his kingdom through unschooled saints, a surprising number of the names in the honor-roll of church history are intricately connected to the schools where they studied and/or taught. Martin Luther and the University of Wittenberg; Timothy Dwight and Yale; John Henry Newman and Oxford, Charles G. Finney and Oberlin College; Fr. Michael Scanlon and the Franciscan University of Steubenville; D. L. Moody and A. J. Gordon and the institutions that bear their names to this day, each stand as a monument to the extent and influence of Christian higher education.

The Life of the Mind and the Life of the Spirit

One of the keys to the influence of these learning communities is the surprising degree to which the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit can and often do coexist in these learning communities. Church-related colleges and universities birthed many of the most significant reformation and renewal movements in history, while most reformation and renewal movements have, in turn, spawned colleges themselves. This is particularly event in American higher education where more than half of our first 600 colleges were established by evangelicals. In fact, the broad historic definition of the term evangelical is best applied to movements who hold to both the power of the Holy Spirit to produce new birth and holy lives with the power of the holy scriptures to guide and shape the life and practice of the church.

It is in these renewal schools that the integration of the life of the Spirit and the life of the mind has achieved its greatest synergy. The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, when empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society. In other words, they were effective because they were able to train young men and women to become what we have called two-handed warriors. By cultivating both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit they were able to produce students capable of mastering both faith formation and culture making.

The Troubled History of Maintaining a Two-Handed Approach

John Wesley QuoteThis potential Spirit/Mind synergy is of particular importance to faith-based colleges at the outset of the twenty-first-century. The dawn of the new millennium finds the evangelical College movement emerging from a century of cultural isolation into a remarkable renaissance. Attendance is booming, endowments are up, intellectual respectability is growing, U.S. News and World Report ratings are climbing.  It is quite possible that the twenty-first-century will present the Christian college movement with the opportunity to articulate a distinctively Christian worldview in American society in a manner unparalleled in over one hundred years.

However, the history of American higher education is littered with colleges who have abandoned their lofty ambitions to train two-handed warriors for a decidedly more “one-handed” approach. Burtchaell (1998), Marsden and Longfield (1992), Marsden (1994), Reuben (1996), Benne (2001), Ringenberg (2006), Budde and Wright (2004) have carefully outlined how easily colleges lose their spiritual cutting-edge. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Reformed or Wesleyan, nearly every time a church-founded college or university manages to achieve societal respectability and financial independence they have immediately abandoned their integrative mission. Like prodigal sons, once they “received their inheritance” they have immediately “set off for a distant country where they squandered their wealth” and their ability to train true two-handed warriors. Their graduates go into the world with one hand tied behind their backs to the detriment of their own souls and the culture they create. It turns out that balancing a commitment to the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit even in a Christian college is not so easy as one would suppose.

The Twenty-First Century Challenge

Will the twenty-first-century be any different? Burtchaell’s (1998) chronicling of the demise of nearly every Christian college in American history (including at least two CCCU schools) reads like a modern-day Book of Judges. Knowing that within a few generations of the death of nearly every college’s founding leadership, “the people of God did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshipped other Gods” (Judges 3:7) is depressing reading for anyone who has given their life to Christian higher education.

Burtchaell concludes his book with a sobering challenge:

“The failures of the past, so clearly patterned, so foolishly ignored. And so lethally repeated, emerge pretty clearly from these stories. Anyone who requires further imagination to recognize and remedy them is not up to the task of trying again, and better” (p. 851).

Will the leaders of 21st century Christian colleges rise to his challenge? The future of two-handed higher education may very well depend upon it.


In future posts I will explore key movements history of higher education and how their educational philosophy and practices could help 21st century Christian colleges nurture two-handed warriors.

Next: The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts: Education with Friendship and Heart

 

Notes

Benne, R. (2001). Quality with soul: how six premier colleges and universities keep faith with their religious traditions. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Budde, M. L, & Wright, J. W. (2004).  Conflicting allegiances: the church-based university in a liberal democratic society . Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Burtchaell, J. T. (1998). The dying of the light: the disengagement of colleges and universities from their Christian churchesGrand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Holmes, A. F. (1975). The idea of a Christian college. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans.

Marsden, G. M., & Longfield, B. J. (1992). The Secularization of the academy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marsden, G. M. (1994). The soul of the American university: From protestant establishment to established nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newman, J. H. (1852). The idea of a university: Defined and illustrated. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Reuben, J. A. (1996). The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ringenberg, W. C. (2006). The Christian college: A history of Protestant higher education in America, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.

The Ride: Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond

Part 2 in series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another.  And so are the classic spiritual disciplines.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Micaiah with ‘Maryland’: The crankiest and best horse in the Equestrian Center’s stable

As I write this, I am watching my daughter, Micaiah, take a riding lesson at the Equestrian Center in Burbank, CA. The Equestrian Center is, uh, shall we say, “oddly out of place” in urban Los Angeles. On my right, traffic on the Golden State Freeway (“the” 5, as we say here in L.A.) zooms by at 65+ miles per hour. On my left, horses plod around a riding circle at, well, a lot less than 65 miles per hour. What gives?

Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation? It takes years to painstakingly advance through learning to walk, trot, cantor, gallop, jump, dressage, etc. Then, once you do achieve riding excellence, your top speed is still only a fraction of that of the traffic whizzing by. My daughter shovels, “stuff,” to earn her lessons, but most riders shell out enough cash to cover monthly payments on a luxury car. I mean, if your goal is to get from Pasadena to Hollywood, then this horseback riding thing is a total waste of time. Just buy a Jag and get on with it.

Yet if you think of horseback riding as something designed to get you somewhere on your busy schedule then you are missing the entire point. Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another. The disciplines of learning to ride cleanse the rider of the soul-deadening effects of modern life and “re-center” their soul in a calmer, deeper place. My actress-singer daughter says it’s “rejuvenating.” Seeing the light and energy in her eyes after each time she rides, I believe her.

Spiritual Disciplines

Now at first glance, striving to master 2,000 year-old spiritual disciplines seems even more irrelevant than learning to ride a horse. I mean, at least horseback riding might help you land a role, or inspire a screenplay. What earthly good does it do to invest the time and energy it takes to master practices like prayer, meditation, fasting, Torah-study, or Psalm-singing? Sure, prayer can come in handy when you’re facing an audition, pitch meeting, or financing appointment. But this kind of “spiritual discipline” is practiced by everyone in Hollywood (even the staunchest atheists), and probably has about as much utilitarian value as wearing your lucky pair of socks.  Prep for your meeting, pay for some good coaching, and get on with it.

Yet, if you think of the spiritual disciplines only as something to get you somewhere in your career, you are missing the entire point. Spiritual disciplines are not tools for getting you from failure to success. They are pathways for keeping you alive spiritually in the constantly shifting landscape of success and failure that is Hollywood.

The Soul-Deadening Worlds of Power

The overarching characteristic of the Ivy League (and Hollywood) is what Schmelzer calls, “Grim drivenness.

Actor/Comedienne/Writer Susan Isaacs once challenged a crowd of aspiring entertainment industry students, “Would you accept God’s call to Hollywood if you knew that you would only have three successful years out of a thirty-year career?” Most wouldn’t, yet that is about the average for those who ‘make it’ here.  The spiritual disciplines are the means by which someone survives and even thrives, not only in the three years when they’re a hot property, but in the other twenty-seven as well.

Make no mistake, the competitive nature of all centers of power–Hollywood, the Ivy League, Wall Street, Washington, D.C., etc.–nearly always creates a soul-deadening culture. Former Yale Professor Henri Nouwen warned, “Our society is… a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul.”[1] Dave Schmelzer, principal at Blue Ocean, Inc. in Cambridge, MA asserts the overarching characteristic of his Ivy League community is what he calls, “Grim drivenness.”  Dave adds, “These are the brightest and most talented people in the world, and the very drivenness that got them this far in a highly competitive environment prevents them from ever really enjoying the fruit of their success. There is always another rung to climb on the ladder of success.”[2] Sounds a lot like Hollywood to me!

Yokes that Bring Our Souls Rest

Spiritual disciplines counteract this soul-deadening effect by nourishing the soul of the practitioner and re-centering the filmmaker, professor, stockbroker, and/or congressman in a calmer, deeper place. Prayer, meditation, study, etc. are means by which we deepen our connection to others and to God. Nearly everyone working in a pressure-filled environment can benefit from practicing them—from Zen Buddhist’s like Laker’s coach Phil Jackson, to Scientologists like Tom Cruise.

However, the spiritual disciplines play a particularly meaningful role in the Judeao-Christian tradition. They are part of what early Rabbis referred to as their yoke—the teachings and spiritual practices each Rabbi used to guide their students into a deeper relationship with God.[3] Like learning to ride a horse, the study of Torah—the principal spiritual discipline in rabbinic education—demanded the utmost commitment to move from one level of expertise to the next. Yet, the promise of a life centered in God and his ways made the effort worthwhile. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education.)

Connecting to the Life of God

Jesus of Nazareth built upon this rabbinic tradition to shape his own version of spiritual formation. Jesus told his first followers, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He taught his disciples to pray, study, build community, and serve not to earn religious brownie points, but to form a deep attachment to God—to ‘rest’ in him. Like vines on a branch, Jesus promised his followers that if they would focus upon staying connected to the life of God, then the life of God would flow into them and bear fruit in everything they do (John 15:1-8). The spiritual disciplines are one of the key means by which we maintain that connection. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

USC philosophy professor, Dallas Willard, has worked tirelessly over the last few decades to describe how Christian spiritual formation can and should help us maintain our connection to the life and the love of God in the Academy, Hollywood, and beyond. He states:

“God’s desire for us is that we should live in him. He sends us the Way to himself.  That shows us, in his heart of hearts, what God is really like–indeed, what reality is really like. In its deepest nature and meaning our universe is a community of boundless and totally competent love.”

Personalizing the Process

Like horseback riding, staying connected to the life and love of God is not a one-size-fits-all process. It has taken Micaiah years to find the right stable, the right trainer, the right horse (the crankiest, but “best” in the stable), and the right sub-disciplines to learn to ride in a way that maximizes the ‘gladness’ riding brings her soul. The same is true for those seeking to cultivate a relationship with God. The disciplines that help one person are often torture for another. The key for some is sitting quietly in a beautiful sanctuary, for others it is walking in the beauty of nature, for some connection to God is found among books in a quiet library, for still another it is best found amidst music is a raucous worship service.

The point of spiritual discipline is not to perform some cookie-cutter religious ritual to make God like you better, but rather to find the pathways that best help your soul connect to the God who already loves you infinitely, ultimately, and unconditionally.

In the following weeks I will explore a number of the key concepts and disciplines that have been most helpful to a variety of leaders in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and beyond in living a soul-nourishing life in a soul-deadening world.  My hope is that we can help you create your own individualized set of spiritual disciplines that help you stay connected to the life and love of God even in the most pressurized situations.

Of course there is another way: the way of giving in to a soul-deadness. Will we? Or will we follow my daughter’s example and embrace an “outdated” approach to life, that in the end is the only one capable of transporting us where we really want to go—to the very heart of God.

Let’s ride!

..

Next post in series: Life on the Fast Track: Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments 

 

See also

Emmy Magazine Article Featuring Emmy-winning Producer Kurt Schemper, Director Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

Why Lent is a lot Like Surfing

Spiritual formation book recommendations:

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Alberg Calhoun

The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg

The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

Invitation to a Journey, by Robert Mulholland

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero

The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard

 


[1] The Way of the Heart (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 9.

[2] At least in the Ivy League it is possible to get tenure!

[3] M. Maher (1975). ‘Take my yoke upon you’ (Matt. xi. 29). New Testament Studies, 22, pp 97-103

 

Ash Wednesday Logic: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python

The surfer doesn’t create the waves, but her canoe puts her in a position to catch their energy. 

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Don’t you think it’s a little odd to give up something for Lent in order to worship a Savior who told us to remember him by eating carbs and drinking alcohol?”

That’s the question a brilliant young writer confronted me with after an intense conversation covering Ash Wednesday, Lent, fasting, and dieting (there is a difference, right?).

To her, fasting made about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” whose unspoken motto appears to be: “Painfulness is next to godliness.”

She had a point. We find the head-bonking monks so funny precisely because we know that the extreme asceticism of the Middle ages, no matter how sincere, was profoundly flawed.

But are all ascetic practices flawed? She suspected they were. I desperately tried to offer an alternative perspective.

After talking it through for nearly an hour, I finally gave her the best answer I could: fasting is more like Moana than Monty Python. 

Let me explain…

A Brief History of Lent

For centuries the imposition of ashes on “Ash Wednesday” has served as a symbolic entrance into the Lenten season of repentance

Fasting for 40 days before Easter was originally established as a time of spiritual preparation for new converts to Christianity before they were all baptized together each Easter. However, in 325 AD, The Council of Nicea made Lent an official season of fasting for the entire church to prepare to receive the new members.

This was normally practiced as eating only one meal per day for the entire 40 days.[1] (Note: While many modern Catholics give up something for Lent, the Vatican only prescribes Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as official fast days.)

In the ensuing centuries many Christ-followers found Lent a helpful practice in their walk with God. Fasting is often connected with repentance in Scripture. Using fasting and repentance to help “Prepare the way” for the Lord” in one’s heart for the celebration of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection can be a very helpful and instructive practice.

Entering this season of repentance through imposition of ashes on one’s forehead on “Ash Wednesday” can create a strong connection to the Biblical practice of repenting in sackcloth and ashes.  (Traditionally, the ashes are made from palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to remind us of how quickly our cries of, “Hosanna” can turn to “Crucify him!”) Skipping a meal, a favorite food, or favorite activity can help underscore our words of repentance with our bodies.  Our “hunger” allows us to more closely identify with Jesus’ missional commitments, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).

Lenten Warfare

However, the practice of Lent also has a dark side in church history. As the human tendency toward hyper-control began to infiltrate the church, the practice of Lent became more and more prescribed and restrictive with each passing year. By the Middle Ages the compulsory practice of Lent had become genuinely oppressive, not unlike Monty Python’s head-bonking monks. With the advent of the Reformation, Protestant leaders began to distance themselves from the practice.

Martin Luther saw nothing wrong with Lent in theory, but feared that most Lenten fasting had become dead compulsory religious ritual aimed at earning God’s favor that amounted to “fasting to Satan instead of a fasting unto holiness.” Ulrich Zwingli and later John Calvin were just as rough. They all but outlawed what they called the “gross delusion” of the “superstitious observance of Lent.”

John Wesley helped advance a balanced perspective on Lent

Soon, Lent-keeping became a shibboleth defining which side of the Reformation you were on. Take ashes and the “Anti-Lent” crowd called you an enemy of the gospel. Refuse them, and the “Pro-Lent” gang condemned you to hell.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, was perhaps the first Protestant to swing the pendulum back toward a more balanced approach. Wesley broke with the Church of England’s ban on Lent by listing it among his approved fast days of the Church. In fact,  he thought it was “deplorable” that many Methodists neglected such fasting.

Wesleyan Methodist churches eventually reinstated Lent as an official church practice. Anglicans, Lutherans, and later Presbyterians also eventually reinstated Lent as well (which probably caused Zwingli and Calvin to roll over their graves.)

Dallas Willard and the Spiritual Formation Movement

In recent years, Lent has enjoyed something of a revival among younger Christians, especially those influenced by the contemporary spiritual formation movement. Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, James Houston, and a growing chorus of “Willard for Dummies”[2] advocates are helping contemporary Christians recapture the positive elements of “spiritual discipline” in general, and Lent in particular.

We indirectly participate in our own transformation through the spiritual disciplines.

Willard warns that Protestantism’s emphasis upon grace all too often draws believers into the heresy of passivism. A proper understanding of grace rightly emphasizes our inability to “earn” our own salvation. However, passivism mistakenly emphasizes our inability to play a role in our own transformation (The Renovation of the Heart, p. 82). Fasting in general, and Lenten fasting in particular can help counteract this passive, “I’ll wait around for God to change me,” approach to faith.

While we are saved by faith through grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9), we are transformed by the “interactive presence” of the Holy Spirit in our lives (p. 23). God could transform us instantly and unilaterally, but he has chosen to transform us largely by working with us (p. 10). We participate in our own transformation indirectly by shaping of our thoughts and feelings through the rigorous and skillful application of spiritual discipline  (p. 248).

In other words, while we cannot instantly or immediately transform our character by sheer force of will, we can will to practice the kind of disciplines that put us in a place where God’s grace can transform us into the image of Christ.

This is why Lent can be both used and abused. To practice Lent out of sense of compulsion—say, fearing that God will smite me if I eat chocolate—or in hopes of earning brownie points with God for my good behavior, are both anathema to the the gospel of Christ and the true spirit of the disciplines.

However, to give up something for Lent in hopes of using your body (your whole being) to express your prayer of repentance can be very powerful.  It can put you in a position to better cooperate with the movements of the Spirit in your own soul. And, of course, if we also “take up” a spiritual discipline for Lent—say, Scripture meditation or centering prayer—then we are in a position to catch even more of God’s grace.

Catch the Wave

Just as a surfboard (or canoe) helps a surfer catch the power of a wave, Lent can help someone ‘catch’ the grace of God.

This is where Moana comes in. Just like in Disney’s Moana, the surfer doesn’t create the wave, but her board (or canoe) helps her to catch the energy provided by the ocean. In the same way, a spiritual discipline (such as a Lenten fast) doesn’t create the transforming power of God, but it does help us to catch it.

The spiritual discipline of fasting creates a space of faith that God is only too glad to fill. When practiced in this way, the spiritual discipline of Lent helps people “catch the wave” of God’s ever-available power. (For ideas, see The Lent Project, sponsored by Biola University’s Institute for Spiritual Formation.)

A Personal Note

That’s the way it has worked for me. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that emphasized Lent. Yet for some reason, As a young Christ follower, Lent just seemed like a good idea to prepare my heart for Easter by following Christ into a 40-day fast. Since I wanted my fast to be ‘to’ Christ and not just ‘from’ something, I decided to give up television and use the time I freed for prayer and bible reading.

It turned out to be a profound spiritual experience. I discovered that God’s power and presence had been fully available to me, but night-after-night I had not been available to him.  Once I began using the time previously devoted to mindless entertainment to seek him, I began to catch the supernatural resources that had always been at my disposal. [3] The spiritual discipline of Lent became a surfboard God used to propel me forward in my faith. I’ve since witnessed corporate Lenten fasts impact entire churches and academic communities.

Alcohol, Carbs, and the Presence of God

And that is why Lent is more like Moana’s majestic wave riding than the Monty Python monks pointless head-bonking.

So, Arielle, there’s my answer. Enjoy the blessings of God found in food, drink, carbs, and the arts.  “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1Cor 10:31). But sometimes an intense season of spiritual discipline such as Lent is just what we need to re-examine our heart and catch the wave of Christ’s ever-present help.

The Ocean is Calling!

 

See also

Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond, by Gary David Stratton
What is Spiritual Formation? by Dallas Willard
Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare, by Richard Beck
The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students, by Todd W. Hall

 


[1] Okay, the official Lenten season from Ash Wednesday to Easter is actually 46 days. Why? Because Medieval church leaders decided that fasting on Sunday (a Christian ‘feast’ day) was hypocritical. They deducted the six Sunday’s of Lent from the season of repentance, making Lent an awkward 46 days long. This has always seemed more like a loophole than an actual spiritual discipline to me. I normally just fast the whole 46 days, but having a break once a week can be nice and even help prevent legalism from creeping in.

[2] John Ortberg’s self-professed job description.

[3] Don’t take this as a slam on TV viewing in general. I still love television and many of my friends and students work in the TV industry. I think moderate viewing of excellent shows can be a very helpful spiritual discipline. In fact, my DVR and streaming services have helped me nearly eliminate the kind of mindless channel-surfing that often thwarted my early spiritual development. Since then I have given up Facebook or Social Media, as these tend to be my major time wasters in my current lifestyle.

The Second Great Awakening: From Rural Revival to National Social Movement

Adapted from the authors’ forthcoming article in the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States

More than a century before the New Deal, Public Education, or the Civil Rights movements, the Second Great Awakening fostered a nation-wide “benevolent empire” of care for the poor, freedom for the oppressed and education for all. 

By Gary David Stratton, Professor, Johnson University (TN) and James L. Gorman, Assistant Professor, Johnson University 
Oberlin President, Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875)
Oberlin President, Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875)

Generally regarded as a second groundswell of evangelical Protestant religious interest following the Revolutionary War, the Second Great Awakening was more extensive and enduring than the Great Awakening of the 1730s-1740s. The Second Great Awakening began as a rural movement in the 1790’s and achieved notoriety in the Cane Ridge Revival (1801) led by Barton Stone in the south and the Yale College revival (1802) led by Timothy Dwight in the north. The movement was marked by great educational and social reform, culminating in the ministry and Oberlin college presidency of Charles Grandison Finney, who published one of revivalism’s most influential works, Revival Lectures, in 1835.

Antecedents

Kidd (2007) asserts that dividing the early American awakening into two distinct timelines may “obscure the fact that the evangelical movement continued to develop after 1743 and before 1800” (p. xix). No certain or obvious stopping point for the Great Awakening exists; the same is true for the Second Great Awakening. For instance, Scots-Irish Presbyterianism was crucial to the story of evangelicalism’s development during the Revolutionary period and provides a direct link from the colonial Great Awakening to the early-republic Second Great Awakening (Schmidt). Similarly, New Divinity ministers kept Jonathan Edwards’ vision of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit alive in Congregational churches across New England and into New York, while Pietist revivals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey never completely died out. The same could be said for developments among Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, etc., who each sought the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon their ministries.

Noll (2003) notes that while awakenings may be works of the Holy Spirit, such movements can also be studied as the effect of human leadership. “By taking note of the agents who, whether perceived as servants of God or merely adept shapers of culture, historical explanation adds the sphere of human responsibility to realms of theological principle, religious conviction or social tectonics” (p. 141). By following three key exemplars of the movement, it is possible to sketch out many of the key characteristics of the Second Great Awakening.

Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge Revival (1801)

If one were to mark the “beginning” of the Second Great Awakening, based on criteria of numerical size and geographical extent of awakening, the best starting point would be the “Great Revival in the West” (1797-1805). The leaders were revivalist Presbyterians who followed Jonathan Edwards’ balanced approach to awakening to stoke the fires of awakening through the Revolutionary era who found particularly fertile ground in Kentucky. The rapid expansion of the fledgling nation across the Appalachians created a vast territory with little or no rule of law, where settlers and outlaws often battled to an uneasy seasons of peace, and leaving a spiritual vacuum which revivalists rushed in to fill.

One of the best known of these revivalists was Barton Stone, a “discontented Calvinist” and pastor of two Presbyterian churches in Bourbon County, Kentucky. After witnessing revival in Scottish style “sacramental meetings” in Logan County under the preaching of James McGready (who Stone knew and trusted from his academy days) Stone became convinced that God could grant the gift of faith without an extensive season of “seeking” God. He returned to Bourbon County determined to preach that his men could “believe now, and be saved.” (Alvarez, p. 45)  After growing success in Concord began to attract large crowds, Stone called for a weeklong sacramental meeting at Cane Ridge. The meetings attracted between 10,000 and 20,000 people with many “falling” under the power of the Spirit and coming to faith in a matter of hours (Conkin).

Denominational ties began to lose their meaning in meetings where as many as seven pastors from four denominations were preaching in various parts of the camp simultaneously. Calling themselves simply “Christians,” the movement spread throughout the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, where Stone eventually joined forces with Alexander Campbell in 1832, forming a denomination with a handshake. Denominational unity (a strong ideal of Jonathan Edwards’ revivalism) and innovation (first modeled by George Whitefield in the Great Awakening) became hallmarks or the Stone-Campbell movement and the entire Second Great Awakening. “The Disciples, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ founded by these leaders effectively evangelized the Upper South and opening West because they had translated the Christian message into an effective American idiom” (Noll, p. 51).

Timothy Dwight and Yale College

When the faculties at Harvard and Yale rejected the (First) Great Awakening, entrenching these institutions as “Old Light” bastions, “New Light” friends of the awakening were quick to take up the charge in the founding of a flurry of new colleges with a revival bent.  Some New Divinity colleges, such as Dartmouth, and Amherst, were founded directly on Jonathan Edwards’ principles of revival. Others, like Williams, and Rutgers were later captured by followers of Edwards’ educational vision. In the end, nearly all colleges of the era were eventually influenced by the Edwards/Dwight project of integrating revivalism with Scottish Common Sense Realism, in no small degree due to influence of his grandson, Timothy Dwight, who was named to the presidency of Yale in 1795 in a striking Edwardsean takeover of what had once been an “Old Light” institution.

Like his grandfather, preaching was central to Dwight’s approach to preparing the way for spiritual awakening and presidential sermons were the core of the college curriculum.  Dwight preached twice each Sunday in mandatory college church services: a morning sermon addressed to a doctrinal topic, and an afternoon discourse on more practical and experiential applications of faith, using scripture and Common Sense Realism (Thomas Reid and John Witherspoon) to defend his theology. Still, revival eluded Dwight for his first seven years at Yale, as students commitment to ‘French infidel philosophy’ often exceeded those committed to Christian faith.

It wasn’t until students who had been touched by revivals in the rural churches of the Connecticut River Valley instituted a Jonathan Edwards’ style concert of prayer–a weekly meeting of “united and fervent prayer that God might pour out his Spirit upon the college”–that the Second Great Awakening finally came to Yale. By the end of the summer term, no less than eighty out of 230 students had been “hopefully converted to God and admitted to the college church, thirty-five of which became preachers of the gospel.

Yale experienced three further revivals under Dwight and these outpourings of the Spirit became a welcomed and promoted aspect of the president’s educational program. When students petitioned to cancel classes in a season of spiritual awakening, Dwight refused and instead carefully guided them back to a biblical holism committed to fostering the life of the Spirit in the day-to-day life of the college; an approach that eventually spread to many if not most of America’s colleges.

Under Dwight’s presidency Yale College grew into the largest and most influential college in the Americas and so that higher education became a hallmark of the Second Great Awakening. At one point 35 of the 150 college presidents in the United States were graduates of Dwight’s Yale. Marsden notes that Dwight’s emphasis upon “revival and moral philosophy, were the chief collegiate supplements to traditions of regulated worship…” and laid the foundation for nearly a century of academic ascendancy that “may be called with justice the great age of Christian higher education in the history of the country” (p. 58).

Noll notes that Dwight and these “revival colleges” were instrumental in effecting a “surprising intellectual synthesis” of evangelicalism and common-sense moral reasoning that dominated the nation’s thinking and led to the remarkable “Christianization” of American society (Noll, 2005, p. 9).

Charles Grandison Finney

Regarded as the father of modern revivalism, Charles G. Finney was the human catalyst for some of the most impressive urban revivals in United States history and in the process created the methodology for virtually all evangelists who followed. In 1821 he was converted in the early stages of the Second Great Awakening and left his law studies with the declaration, “I have a retainer from the Lord.” After brief theological training, the local Presbytery licensed Finney as an itinerant home missionary in upstate New York. Bright, athletic, unusually tall, and musically gifted, his theatrical preaching drew enthusiastic crowds and produced numerous converts. The largely “New School Presbyterian” New York Presbytery embraced these measures and published a pamphlet of his revival efforts in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards’ Faithful Narrative.

Finney considered himself a theological descendant of Jonathan Edwards’ revivalism. However, his highly volunteeristic theology of conversion led him to reject Calvinistic views and preach “man’s duty to change his own heart.” Rather than pressing his audience to begin the long process of seeking a salvation granted only by God, Finney called sinners to make an instantaneous decision to repent and believe. His view of conversion as a “free decision” led him to adopt and popularize a highly “democratic practice” of evangelism known as New Measures (Smith, 2007, 2-8), including dramatic and colloquial preaching, an extensive time of singing before preaching, the inclusion of women as leaders, the use of an anxious seat (precursor to the altar call), the use of celebrity, novelty, and story to persuade, and public prayer meetings for God to pour out his Spirit upon particular sinners.

In 1830 Finney moved his efforts into urban settings with a tremendous success in a great revival in Rochester, NY that is still regarded as “the greatest revival in American history” (Cross, p. 13). The experience launched Finney into national prominence, and after accepting brief pastorates in New York and Boston, he eventually settled at Oberlin College (OH) as a faculty member and later president. It was during this era that Finney delivered and published his wildly popular Revival Lectures, one of the most widely read books in American religious history. Rather than instructing evangelicals to wait passively for God to send revival, Finney’s great confidence in God’s willingness to grant the awakening gift of the Spirit in answer to prayer led him to declare, “A revival is no more a miracle than a crop of wheat.”

William G. McLoughlin’s interpretation that Finney was asserting that revivals were ‘worked up’ while Edwards believed revivals were ‘prayed down’ (p. 11) misses Finney’s remarkable emphasis upon prayer and the sophisticated nuance of divine and human interaction in both revivalists’ theologies. Still, it seems a fitting epitaph for much evangelism after Finney when “revival meetings” became standard practice in virtually every Christian denomination in the United States and beyond.

Finney’s emphasis on the filling of the Holy Spirit as the key to perfectionistic holiness evidenced in self-sacrificing love for the lost, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed became the impetus for his version of the Second Great Awakening’s vision to create a “benevolent empire” of “good government, Christian education, temperance reform, relief for the poor and the abolition of slavery” (T. L. Smith, p. 60-61).

Oberlin was one of the first colleges in the nation to admit blacks and women as students in full standing and the clear leader for the anti-slavery movement in the mid-west. Due to the enduring popularity of Finney’s Memoirs and Revival Lectures, his influence upon revivalist evangelicalism eventually rivaled and even eclipsed that of Jonathan Edwards. Noll contends,

“[A] good case can be made that Finney should be ranked with Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Carnegie […] as one of the most important public figures in nineteenth-century America” (Noll, 2002, p. 176).

Outcomes

While it is as difficult to find a clear ending point to the Second Great Awakening as it is to find a clear beginning, its impact was felt deep into the nineteenth-century and beyond. More than a century before the New Deal, Public Education, or the Civil Rights movements, the Second Great Awakening fostered a nation-wide “benevolent empire” of care for the poor, freedom for the oppressed and education for all

Religiously, the awakening left enduring practices of concerted prayer, revival/camp meetings, anxious seats/altar calls, new measures, that still influence nearly every evangelical Protestant denomination today. Theologically, the Second Great Awakening marked the end what Guelzo calls one hundred years of “theological bungee-jumping” between God and human roles in conversion, so that gradually and in increments the idea of gradually seeking salvation was replaced by immediate conversion.

Politically, it is difficult to miss the connection to the democratization of American society and the democratization of the church. However, the direction of that influence is difficult to measure. Globally, the Second Great Awakening birthed the beginning of a massive evangelical missionary movement, first to the Native American communities and eventually to foreign missions. Culturally, the awakening contributed to a sense of national cohesion at a time of profound social change, but most likely also fueled a sense of manifest destiny that deeply wounded the very Native American populations the revivalists most wanted to evangelize.

Gary David Stratton (Ph.D. Biola University) is University Professor of  Spiritual Formation and Cultural Engagement and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johnson University (TN). James L. Gorman (Ph.D. Baylor University) is Assistant Professor of History at Johnson University. Based upon Stratton and Gorman’s “The Great Awakening [1730s to 1740s]” in the “Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

See also

The Great Awakening: From British Revival to American Revolution

Revival and Moral Philosophy:  A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?

What does the University of Tennessee have to do with Prayer?

References

Alvarez, Carmelo, and David N. Williams. 2012. The Stone-Campbell Movement: a Global History. St. Louis: Chalice Press.

Conkin, Paul Keith. 1990. Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Cross, Whitney R. 1950. The Burned-over District; the Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Finney, Charles G. 1960. Lectures on Revivals of Religion. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Guelzo, Allen. C. 1997. An Heir or a Rebel? Charles Grandison Finney and the New England Theology. Journal of the Early Republic. 17: 61-94.

Kidd, Thomas. 2007. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Marsden, George M. 1994. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press.

McLoughlin, William G. 1978. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Noll, Mark A. 2005. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press.

Noll, Mark A. 2010. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans..

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2001. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Smith, Ted A. 2007. The New Measures: a Theological History of Democratic Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Timothy L. 1980. Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Williams, David Newell. 1979. “The Theology of the Great Revival in the West as Seen Through the Life and Thought of Barton Warren Stone” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Vanderbilt University.)

Scripture and Culture-Making: What Christian Colleges could Learn from Rabbinic Higher Education

Part 3 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education
“Today’s Christian teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.”
-Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

N.T. Wright concludes The Challenge of Jesus with a challenge of his own to 21st Century Christians:

“The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom. I believe if we face the question, ‘if not now, then when?’ if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, ‘if not us, then who? And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?”

Wright’s challenge begs the question whether or not 21st Century Christian colleges hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in as high a regard as the Jewish educators of Jesus’ day held the Torah. Like Greco-Roman higher education, Rabbinic higher education was deeply devoted to the development of the life of the mind in close-knit learning communities.  However, the distinguishing characteristic of Rabbinic Higher Education was not so much its pedagogy as its remarkable devotion to its subject matter–Torah. Whereas Greco-Roman students were expected to master the ever-changing philosophies of their masters, students in Rabbinic higher education strove for mastery of the unchanging word of God. The “words of Torah were essentially divine.  God’s words were part and parcel of God’s essence” (Hirshman, 2009, p. 30).

Faithfulness Before Innovation

This devotion to the word of God resulted in a corresponding commitment to faithfulness versus novelty in Jewish education. “No one was free to choose his own credo or ignore the sage’s mediation in approaching the divine… The way of life was learned, and the worldview the product of particular knowledge and distinctive modes of thinking about and analyzing that knowledge.”  The object of Jewish higher education was “full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it…” resulting a intimacy with the words of Torah” written on the pages of the heart (Neusner, 1999, p. iii). Education, or more particularly, learning Torah, became “the Jewish religious pursuit par excellence…” (Hirshman, p. 3, 30). In short, they were true two handed warriors.

Jewish boys (and many girls) entered Beit Sefer (primary school) charged with mastering the Torah before the age of thirteen. This mastery often extended to the oral memorization of enormous portions of the Torah, as well as rudimentary reading and writing.  After their bar mitzvah, and the corresponding accountability for obedience to the law, the best students were allowed to go on to  Beit Midrash (secondary school, literally, “study house”), while they learned a trade. The Beit Midrash curriculum added the study of the Writings and the Prophets to that of Torah, and more importantly, Talmud, the art of Rabbinic interpretations comprised of both Midrash—inquiry into the sacred texts, and Mishna, the study of oral law independent of its scriptural basis.

Rabbinic Higher Education

Only the most remarkable secondary students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education, by obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi.  Teaching Rabbis made up a “collegium of sages” responsible for applying the law of God in new situations and for passing on the tradition of scriptural interpretation to new students. “Each begins as a disciple of a master, then himself becomes a master to the next generation of disciples, in a long chain of learning” (Neusner, p. iv).

The goal of faithfulness to the word of God drove the master-student relationship and teaching style of the study house. Rabbinic education was consumed with recitation and discussion, not merely because of pedagogical considerations, but also for theological reasons. The Rabbis so reverenced the written words of Scripture, no other texts were considered worthy of study. Rabbinic higher education was an oral culture, perpetrated and preserved by an ongoing high-level discussion that eclipsed even Socratic dialogue in its relentless back and forth nature.

Rabbi Hillel and his Talmidim (Unattributed)

In order to facilitate this dialogue, Talmidim were expected to follow their master night-and-day as they taught their tight-knit band of brothers in the study house, over meals, and in the market place. “Study was a process of unending repetition and ubiquitous recitation that transpired in almost every possible venue” (Chilton, and Neusner, 2005, p. 131-132). A good disciple stuck so close to his teacher that by the end of the day he was literally covered with dust kicked up by his master’s feet (Vander Laan). Through it all, Talmidim strove to attain the prerequisite mastery of Torah, Midrash, and Mishnah necessary to become sages themselves so that they too could join the unbroken chain of faithfulness. (For an outstanding discussion of 1st Century BCE Rabbi Hillel and his application to 21st Century culture making, see, Joseph Telushkin’s, Hillel: If Not Now, When?)

From Studying Scripture to Making Culture

Most importantly for our discussion, the goal of this remarkable devotion to the word of God was not privatized faith, but culture making. Rabbinic education was birthed in the cultural crisis of the Babylonian captivity and is certainly the best human explanation of how Jewish culture survived the Diaspora. While Moses commanded the night and day impartation of Torah to the next generation, leading Torah historian, Wilhelm Bacher, notes that Nehemiah’s reading the Torah before the post-exilic community in Jerusalem was the actual “birthday of ancient Jewish education” (cited in Hirshman, p. 121.) Jewish leaders were painfully aware of their society’s need for leaders soaked in the culture-making power of the word of God. “According to the Rabbinic ideal, all of Israel would be teachers, and ultimately masters, of Torah” (Chilton, p. 46). Only then could Jewish society reflect Torah in justice, charitable acts, gifts of first fruits and sacrifices (Hirshman, p. 19).

When the cultural chips were down, Rabbis had the courage to contrast the culture-making power of the Jewish study house, not with the Greco-Roman education, but with the theatre and circus, “pitting the two against one another on the level of popular culture” (Hirshman, p. 121). In most Roman cities the circus/theater and beit Midrash were within blocks of one another. However, unlike the Romans, Jewish commitment to the word of God led to a stronger emphasis upon education than entertainment. Romans flocked to bread and circus, while Jews gathered to study. The Rabbis were confident that, in the end, their deep culture would triumph over Rome’s shallow culture. The beit Midrash had helped them endure the cultural onslaught of Babylon and Persia. Rome would be no match for them. And while the process took much longer than they could have ever imagined, it was a strategy that stood the test of time.

 

From Deuteronomy to the SAT

Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)
Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)

It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to envision how this principle might apply to twenty-first century educators seeking to develop two-handed warriors fluent in both faith building and culture making. Entrance into Rabbinical higher education required an oral recitation of the entire Torah. Entrance to most Christian colleges today requires little more than an SAT score of 1500.  Entrance to early American liberal arts colleges required a comprehensive grasp of the English Bible. Graduation from most Christian colleges today requires little more than a rudimentary understanding of Scripture. Is it any wonder that pop culture is shaping our students more than their faith?

Whether one is referring to Catholics or Protestants, today’s ‘Christian culture’ is a mile wide and an inch deep. Education is losing out to entertainment at every level. As much as I value the culture-making force of the entertainment industry, the arts nearly always follow the intellectual currents of the day (Hunter, 2010, p. 87-88), and the only intellectual current flowing in pop culture today is a narcissistic, consumer-driven, individualism.

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s research into America youth culture discovered that, “Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.” As a result, “a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives.” Their worldview is little more than “moralistic, therapeutic, deism,” or more specifically, “whatever.”

For Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities to be of any value in helping our faith communities resist this pop culture onslaught and grow into vibrant culture-making institutions ourselves we need to return to the wisdom of the Rabbi’s—a rigorous devotion to the word of God. Like Chaim Potok, the sages of the Rabbinic school might dare ask the leaders of today’s Christian colleges, “Do you have faith in the word of God?” Sometimes I’m not so sure. Our curriculum and campus culture certainly don’t appear to reflect that kind of faith. At least not in comparison to the Rabbinic schools.

Yet I suspect that our best hope for prevailing in the struggle for the souls of our colleges and universities may be engaging in a Rabbinic commitment to the mastery of the worldview-forming, character-shaping narratives of Scripture. I am not talking about a lightweight devotional band-aid, but an intellectually challenging and spiritually enriching student-teacher dialogue that dominates our campus culture and captures the hearts minds our students. Anything less may result in a cultural exile from which we will never return.

Chaim Potok gave voice to a more modern expression of this sentiment in his novel, In the Beginning: “If the Torah cannot go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”

As N.T. Wright challenges us: “If the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?  If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

 

Next post in the series: With Prayer in the School of Christ: The Liberal Arts and the Knowledge of God.

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To read series from the beginning go to:

The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: Two Handed Higher Education.

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Notes

Wilhelm Bacher, Tradition und Tradenten in den Schulen Palästinas und Babyloniens: Studien und Materialien zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Talmud. (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1966).

Bruce Chilton, and Jacob Neusner, “Paul and Gamaliel.” In, Alan J. Avery-Peck, ed. Review of Rabbinic Judaism. (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

Marc G. Hirshman, The stabilization of rabbinic culture, 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: texts on education and their late antique context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

James Davidson Hunter, To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Jacob Neusner, The four stages of rabbinic Judaism (London: Routledge, 1999).

Chaim Potok, In the beginning. (New York: Knopf, 1975).

Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh, The Gospels and Christian life in history and practice (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

Ray Vander Laan, Stephen Sorenson, and Amanda Sorenson. In the dust of the rabbi: 5 faith lessons. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006). See also, Ray Vander Laan’s excellent website, Followtherabbi.com.

N.T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus: rediscovering who Jesus was and is. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1999.)

Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and Our Strange New Evangelical America, by Rebecca K. Reynolds

It is terrifically hard to wait at the foot of the mountain for the Word of the Lord. Will we wait in the dangerous silence for who He truly is, or slowly grow desperate enough to worship a golden calf?

Christovao Ferreira (c. 1580-1650, played here by Liam Neeson) was iconic to believers at the time. Your denomination’s equivalent might be N.T. Wright, Billy Graham, John Piper, or Francis Chan—but whoever that hero is, Ferreira was this sort of leader. He was so solid, so certain, so strong that every young priest knew that he would not sell out for any reason.

by Rebecca K. Reynolds

Andrew Peterson’s, Silence of God

When I first heard Andrew Peterson’s song “The Silence of God,” I was stunned. It was so bare. I wondered if it was even heretical…

I’ve since read thoughts by theologians about the growth value of long spans in which God leaves us in silence, but if I remember correctly, the first time I ever encountered someone wrestling with the concept wasn’t in a book, but in Andrew’s song.

He was the first person I heard admit, “I can’t hear God’s voice right now, and that’s terrible and it’s scary.”

It’s enough to drive a man crazy
It’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder
If he’s been sane
When he’s bleating for comfort
From Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heavens’ only answer
Is the silence of God
And it’ll shake a man’s timbers
When he loses his heart
When he has to remember
What broke him apart
And this yoke may be easy
But this burden is not
And the crying fields are frozen
By the silence of God

If a man has got to listen
To the voices of the mob
Who are reeling in the throes
Of all the happiness they’ve got
When they tell you all their troubles
Have been nailed up to that cross
What about the times when even
Followers get lost
‘Cause we all get lost sometimes

If you know this song, you know these last stanzas don’t finish it off. But even hearing this much, I felt a strange sort of relief wash over me. Until he verbalized it, I hadn’t realized that all those years of religious-speak, all those appeals for God to “show up” had made me feel pressure to find continual signs of His engagement.

I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear someone I trusted say, “When God is silent–and that’s often enough for me to write a song about it–I feel disappointed and lost.”

Martin Scorsese’s, Silence

Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, was another one of those moments for me. Among other things, this is a film about faith attempting to survive long expanses of Divine quiet. The film reveals how we expect God to show up, how He does show up instead, and the human weaknesses that appear in the massive gaps between those two realities.

 

Japanese believer’s martyred for their refusal to renounce their faith for the expediency of any earthly allegiance.

Unlike Christian movies in which God provides some sort of “I have arrived” moment– God does not show up here with a new pickup truck, a much-desired pregnancy, or a restored marriage. The God of this film lets His children wrestle with years of suffering in relative silence. Because of this, we watch people who are trying to obey Him strain and grieve–desperate for confirmation during impossible times.

There are so many angles to this film, but I’m just going to focus on the one most personal to me in this post: the traumatic impact of an older follower of Christ who abandons his pure faith.

The film opens describing the work of Christovao Ferreira, a legendary Jesuit priest who has spent 15 years attempting to evangelize Japan. Ferreira was iconic to believers at the time. Your denomination’s equivalent might be N.T. Wright, Billy Graham, John Piper, or Francis Chan—but whoever that hero is, Ferreira was this sort of leader. He was so solid, so certain, so strong that every young priest knew that he would not sell out for any reason.

When news hits Portugal that Ferreira has apostasized, Rodrigues and a fellow priest believe the news is a dirty rumor. So, the two leave home to scour Japan in an attempt to dispel the disheartening story. It is a dangerous mission, likely to lead to death, but the two young men are idealistic and devoted, and they know how important it is to to the global church reclaim Ferreira’s reputation.

After arriving in Japan, the two young priests grieve to see believers tortured and slaughtered. As they experience emotional and spiritual torment, they stumble; they fail. But over and again, they rise up again in their faith to try to follow God once more.

When Rodrigues is captured by Japanese officials, his opponents try to break his faith repeatedly. The young priests heart crumbles, and he wavers on insanity, but he continues to hold fast. At last, the Japanese leaders bring his suffering to a climax — a meeting with Ferreira.

In this meeting, Rodrigues finds that Ferreira has truly apostasized. His hero is now a Buddhist, writing a book about the great lie of Christianity. His former hero begins to discourage Rodrigues from his own belief, arguing against the gospel and its ability to saturate Japan.

Ferreira urges Rodrigues to give up his faith, to compromise, to conform. Rodrigues is devastated, but he holds fast.

The Japanese could kill Rodrigues, but for strategic purposes, they want him to abandon his faith instead. So, they place Rodrigues in a holding cell where he can hear the gasps and wails of other believers being tortured. He is told that these Christians will be persecuted until Rodrigues denies his faith.

As he praying for strength and wisdom, he finds words of praise carved into his cell wall. Laudate Eum (Praise Him). He runs his fingers into the grooves and appeals desperately to the Lord for courage and fortitude. At this moment, Ferreira enters the cell and explains to Rodrigues that those praises were carved by himself before his denial of the faith.

Silence-05846_R-1.jpg
Ferreira urges Rodrigues to see how selfish it is to maintain an idealistic belief that causes others to suffer as he builds a case for joining with the leaders of the world out of love of the masses.

It is a hellish scene of betrayal and temptation. Ferreira urges Rodrigues to see how selfish it is to maintain an idealistic belief that causes others to suffer. He urges Rodrigues to see that apostasy is altruistic. He builds a case for joining with the leaders of the world out of love of the masses.

Of all the torment Rodrigues endures, this betrayal of a former hero is the worst. This man who had once led him in steadfast belief is now leading him to abandon it. It is more than Rodrigues can bear.

Abandoned by Our Heroes

As I sat in the theater watching all of this, I was blown away. The timing was more than a little ironic.

Just a few moments before watching this film, I had been talking with a friend about how distraught we have felt this past year. So many people my age feel abandoned by our own older faith heroes. In dire national circumstances, we have watched several of our evangelical heroes abandon the ideals they have taught us–urging us to make alliances with forces hostile to our faith.

They have told us that this is loving. They have told us to do this for the good of the people.

Values they once encouraged us to embrace in the face of all opposition have now been discarded for what they now claim to be a greater cause. They mock us for being too committed to impractical standards. They tell us to wake up, to open our eyes, to give up our old, innocent way of looking at the world.

But before our very eyes, some of these men seem to have changed into different sorts of beings. We recognize their faces, but we no longer recognize their hearts. Their language is different, soured, horrifying. They twist the stories of our Scripture to suit their new causes.

Watching this has taken our knees out from under us.

I’m not going to get more specific than that, nor am I going to dig into what happens in the end of the film here. But I will say that this movie (among other things) helped me to understand why the last few months have broken my heart so deeply. Watching my heroes conform to the ideals of the world has been too much for my heart to bear.

These men ask us to “leave well enough alone” and move on. But we aren’t sulking. We aren’t pouting. We feel like we have watched people we trusted and imitated trample on the gospel. And we feel like they have called out and asked us to do the same.

So many people claim to know exactly what God is doing these days, but I will tell you the truth. I don’t. My perceptions might be all wrong…

Time will tell, I suppose.

I do know that I’m profoundly disappointed in some of my old heroes. I know that I no longer recognize our strange, new evangelical America. And even though scores of people around me believe that I am too sensitive, I think it is right to be disappointed. Watching your heroes distort truth is no small thing. God holds leaders to a higher standard because heroes falling creates aftershocks that can trickle through an entire generation of young believers.

Waiting on a Silent God

A huge lightning bolt of God’s appearance didn’t show up at the end of this film, but I left the theater feeling like I felt when I first heard Andrew Peterson’s lyric. I walked away affirmed that it was not wrong to be sincere, not wrong to be sad, and that it was even okay to sit alone in the quiet and wait for an honest manifestation of God’s presence instead of letting immediate needs force me to rush in to claim what He isn’t and what He hasn’t done.

God’s name is holy, even when He seems silent. In those expanses, I do not want to use it in vain. It is terrifically hard to wait at the foot of the mountain for the Word of the Lord, but I would rather wait in the dangerous quiet for what He truly is than grow desperate enough to worship a golden calf.

There’s a statue of Jesus
On a monestary knoll
In the hills of Kentucky
All quiet and cold
And He’s kneeling in the garden
Silent as a stone
And all His friends are sleeping
And He’s weeping all alone

And the man of all sorrows
He never forgot
What sorrow is carried
By the hearts that He bought
So when the questions dissolve
Into the silence of God

The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo
Of the silence of God

(Andrew Peterson)

 

Read the complete article

 

See Also:

Andrew Garfield on the Ignatian journey that led him through ‘Silence’ and into the love of Christ

2016 Movies and TV Reflect Americans’ Changing Relationship with Faith, by Alissa Wilkinson

Do America’s Colleges Need Revival?

Part 6 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

In trying to reach his students, Jon ended up transforming his culture and the future of American higher education

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“(A) strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives. Their worldview is little more than moralistic, therapeutic, deism, or more specifically, ‘whatever.'”

– Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers.

Jon’s students broke his heart. As recently appointed pastor of his church and headmaster of their school, he strove to provide his students with the best biblical instruction and ‘spiritual formation’ programming available. Yet despite his every effort they were completely apathetic about their faith.

Sure, most attended church each Sunday, but it didn’t impact their daily lives one wit. Everything was one giant ‘whatever,’ as they wasted their vast potential in partying and public drunkenness. His youth group was literally the laughing stock of the town. Slowly Jon came to the sobering conclusion that ‘business as usual’ was failing his students. Something had to be done.

However, Jon was not your typical youth pastor. His three-fold strategy to win his students to Christ was not for the faint of heart. First, to make sure they clearly understood what it meant to follow Christ, he began preaching a Sunday evening hour-long sermon series on “Justification by Faith.” Second, to make sure his students understood the concepts, he and his wife invited them to evening discussions in their home. Third, because he didn’t trust in the power of his own persuasiveness and programming, Jon began to pray for each student by name, often spending hours each day asking God to ‘pour out’ his Spirit upon his teaching and ‘awaken’ the hearts of his listeners. After a year and a half of intense efforts… nothing changed.

Then suddenly it seemed to Jon as if “the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and to wonder­fully work among us.” Several students began to follow Christ. One was a young woman who had been the ringleader of the party crowd. Word of her conversion went “like a flash of lightning” into the heart of virtually every youth in town. They came to Christ in a flood and would talk of nothing but Jesus and eternal things for hours on end. The change in the young people was so dramatic that soon the work of God spread to their parents and then to the entire town.

Within six months nearly a quarter of the town’s population professed faith in Christ. Jon later wrote:

“There was scarcely any in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world… The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner… and the number of true saints multiplied… (until) the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.” [1]

As word of the ‘revival’ among Jon’s students spread, churches and schools across America began to seek a similar work in their own towns. Churches began to passionately preach the truth and create small groups where people could connect with one another and the word of God. But Jon’s model had convinced that that great teaching and educational programs were not enough to reach the next generation. They began to unite in prayer asking God to pour out his Spirit upon their efforts and awaken the hearts of those farthest from God.

Within seven years, the First “Great Awakening” had swept the eastern seaboard resulting in as much as 15% of the total population of America professing conversion to Christ. Jon’s approach to student ministry not only transformed the church, it also became the underlying educational philosophy for three generations of “revival colleges,” such as Dartmouth,  Brown, and Princeton, who lated appointed Jon their college president.

Of course by then Jonathan Edwards, had become a household name.

Do American Colleges Need Revival?

Do twenty-first century schools and churches need such ‘revival’? The question seems laughable to those who equate ‘revival’ with slick televangelists, emotional appeals and high-pressure altar calls resulting in little long-term fruitfulness, or periods of religious excitement when undergrads neglect their studies to immerse themselves in dualistic expressions of spirituality.

Yet to Jonathan Edwards and most early American cultural and educational leaders, ‘revival’ meant something altogether different. For them revival was a descriptive term for the aftermath of a season of ‘spiritual awakening’ caused by ‘an outpouring’ of God’s Spirit. The outpouring of the Spirit resulted in the same kind of knowledge of God’s Presence, sense of awe, conviction of sin, and sacrificially loving community that was evoked in the church at Pentecost (Acts 2:42-47). As J.I. Packer boldly articulates, “Revival is a repeat of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.[2]

To Edwards, a spiritual awakening was a season of an “extraordinary effusion of the Spirit of God” that resulted in “accelerating and intensifying” the normal ministries of the Holy Spirit.[3] Edwards described such seasons as times when:

“God seems to have gone out of his usual way, in the quickness of his work, and the swift progress his Spirit has made in his operations on the hearts of many. (M)uch was done in a day or two, as at ordinary times … is done in a year.”[4]

Like most early American schools, Princeton was established as a “revival college” and later named Edwards their president. (Photo: Nassua Hall, princeton.edu)

To Edwards, spiritual awakening was key to the mission of the church and academy.These seasons of the “outpouring” of the Spirit resulted an intensified conviction of sin, sanctification of character, illumination of intellect, and impact upon culture so that Christians became more earnest in their pursuit of God, more Christ-like in their love and service, and more committed to their vocation in the world.

Edwards’ experience in the Great Awakening coupled with a lifetime of scholarship on the subject led him to the conclusion that: “(F)rom the fall of man to this day wherein we live the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit of God.”[5]

Could he be right?What might such a movement look like in American churches, youth groups, colleges, and cities?

A Third Great Awakening?

While much has been lost in American excesses over the past century, Edwards’ older idea of revival being the result of a spiritual awakening is central to historic evangelical higher education. The quest for society-wide spiritual awakening drove much of the educational vision of nineteenth-century Evangelical leaders in their attempts to develop America’s first genuinely Christian colleges. As George M. Marsden, noted historian of higher education and Edwards’ leading biographer explains:

“Much of the antebellum collegiate education was shaped by New Englanders with an Edwardsean heritage, (who) controlled most of the nations leading colleges, including the state ‘universities.”[6]

The best of these colleges formed the intellectual backbone of a transatlantic revivalism” that became “the dominant theme in America from 1800 to 1860” and a “central mode of our search for national identity.” In these colleges, literature, art and the sciences moved into the academic curriculum for the first time, the anti-slavery movement found a welcomed sanctuary, the largest foreign missionary movement in history found its origin, a vision for universal public education found a champion, and a resilient ethic of moral citizenship found a remarkable incubator. [7]

The spiritual-intellectual synthesis of ‘revival colleges’ dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and led to the remarkable “Christianization” of society. Could it happen again?

Noll notes that the leaders of these colleges were key to a “surprising intellectual synthesis” of evangelicalism and common-sense moral reasoning that dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and which led to the remarkable “Christianization” of American society.[8] As legendary historian Timothy Smith asserts, these educators first and foremost “were revivalists” and we ignore their effectiveness to our peril (author’s italics). [9] Their effectiveness as educators came, not in spite of their commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit in higher education, but rather because of it.

 

Edwards and the Humility to Learn from History 

All this is to say that Jonathan Edwards certainly appears to be a promising starting point for educators and ministers seeking to reach a new generation marked by spiritual apathy and what researchers Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton have labeled “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  Accordingly, this series will exploring Jonathan Edwards’ theology of spiritual formation and awakening in 19th century American higher education in order to connect it to our 21st century educational philosophy and practices.

However, before we can learn anything from Edwards, we first need to humble ourselves as he did on that fateful day in 1734, when he finally admitted that “business as usual” was failing his students. Then and only then can we look into the genius of this man who’s “revival thinking” shaped virtually all American higher education for over 150 years. As Marsden expressed so eloquently in his biography of Edwards:

“We will never learn anything from the sages of the past unless we get over our naïve assumption that the most recently popular modes of thought are best… We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from the great figures in the past—both their brilliance and shortcomings. Otherwise we are stuck only with the wisdom of the present.”[10]

In future posts I will explore key moments in the history of the Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts in relation to Smith and Denton’s generational research and then tackle Edwards’ unique approach to genuinely Christian higher education that proved so influential in early American colleges.

Next: Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

.

Other posts in the series:

NOTES

[1] Jonathan Edwards (1737), A Faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. C. C. Goen (Ed.). In H. S. Stout, (General Ed.), The works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening. (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1972). (Originally written as an unpublished letter, dated May 30, 1735, to Boston clergyman, Benjamin Colman, who had requested an account of the Connecticut River Valley revival of 1734-5. It was first published in London in 1737. Normally referred to as Faithful Narrative.)

[2] Keep in step with the Spirit. (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), p. 256. See also, Martin Lloyd-Jones, Joy unspeakable: the baptism of the Holy Spirit. (Eastborne, UK: Kingsway, 1985), p. 280. For a similar assessment of Pentecost being the “prototypical revival” see also other Reformed theologians such as, Kuyper (1900), Packer (1984), and Lloyd-Jones (1985). This viewpoint is also held by most Wesleyan (e.g. Stokes, 1975; Dayton, 1987), and Pentecostal/Charismatic thinkers (e.g. Williams, 1999; Keener, 1999). See also, Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit: contours of Christian theology. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), p. 84.

[3] Edwards, J. (1733ms/2005). Persons ought to do what they can for their salvation (Ecclesiastes 9:10). In H. S. Stout, K. P. Minkema, C. J. D. Maskell (Eds.), Works of Jonathan Edwards Online. Retrieved March 30, 2008, from http://edwards.yale.edu/ref/6168/e/p/8 (Originally preached December 9, 1733.  Privately published in Boston 1734.) See, Samuel Storms, Signs of the spirit: an interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious affections. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p. 25.

[4] Edwards, Faithful narrative, p. 21.

[5] Jonathan Edwards (1774), A History of the work of redemption. Wilson (Ed.). In H. S. Stout, (General Ed.), The works of Jonathan Edwards, 9. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 138. (Originally a series of sermons preached in 1739 that were later expanded and published posthumously in 1774.),

[6] Edwards, A Life, p. 8-9.

[7] R. Carwardine, 1978; P. Miller, 1965, p. 3,6; Marsden, 1980, p. 222.  See also, J. R. Fitzmier, 1998; Smith, 195; Ringenberg, 1987, 2006, 2007; and Reuben, 1996.

[8] America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 9.

[9] Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America. New York:  Abingdon Press.

[10] Edwards, A Life, p. 8-9, 499, 502-3

 

The First Great Awakening: From a British Revival to the American Revolution

By linking the choice of new birth with his audience’s choice of a new American identity, British evangelist George Whitefield provided a common American experience that unified diverse colonists who lacked a common identity

By Gary David Stratton, Professor, Johnson University (TN) and James L. Gorman, Assistant Professor, Johnson University 

1357700728-whitefieldThe Great Awakening is the common designation for a Protestant socio-spiritual movement in the American colonies that helped establish the groundwork for much of the nation’s spiritual and national identity. The awakening began among German, Dutch and Scot-Irish immigrants and was greatly influenced by British Methodists and New England Puritans. It culminated in enormous religious gatherings, mass professions of faith, controversial ecstatic experiences, and the overthrow of Old World hierarchies in church and society. While interpretations of the meaning of the Great Awakening divide into numerous schools of thought, “It seems evident that in one way or another, the Great Awakening helped to prepare American society and culture for the Revolution, but of course not in any direct, deliberate, or intentional manner” (Wood, p. 180-181). 

Initial stirrings

An upsurge in revivalist piety began in the middle colonies in the ministries of German-American Dutch-Reformed minister, Theodore Jacobus Frelinghuysen (c. 1691 – c. 1747), and Scots-Irish-American Presbyterian, Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), as well as among Congregationalist churches in the Connecticut River Valley (Crawford, p. 108).  When the Connecticut River Valley revival reached Northamption, MA in 1734, its effect was so dramatic, it prompted the town’s minister, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) to write what became a bestselling account, entitled, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton. Considered by many to be America’s greatest theologian, Edwards viewed this outpouring of the Spirit as an acceleration and intensification of the work of the normal Holy Spirit so that as much is “done in a day or two, as at ordinary times […] is done in a year.” (p. 21). Like all Puritans, Edwards held that such “outpourings of the Spirit” were God-granted events to be sought by ministers and their congregations as their only hope for advancing the gospel on earth. As the story of Northampton’s revival spread, ministers and congregations up and down the Atlantic seaboard began praying for similar visitation in their towns.

Divine Dramatist

British evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) entered this rarified spiritual atmosphere determined to seize the moment for God’s glory. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” coupled with his profound dramatic gifts connected him with his audiences in an unprecedented manner. His first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, thrust him into popular imagination such that Harry Stout declares him “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity” (1991, p. x). In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield fashioned a plan to build on this momentum. The evangelist and his publicist, William Seward, work tirelessly to promote Whitefield’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every printed work published in America in 1740.

By the time he reached Boston, all of New England was in a fever pitch of anticipation. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, virtually every New England inhabitant heard Whitefield preach face-to-face. Scores of professed conversions and great public interest in religion swept the colonies, from Harvard, where young Samuel Adams was deeply affected, to Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin and Whitefield became famous friends. In fact, Whitefield’s growing celebrity granted him unparalleled influence in Colonial society. He was able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African-American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day as the first in a long line of public figures whose claim to influence rested on celebrity rather than inherited social status (Stout).

Controversy and Excess

Gilbert Tennent fired what was perhaps the opening salvo of the disestablishment of a the Old World hierarchical view of society in his 1739 sermon, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” arguing that only ministers who have experienced “the new birth of conversion” should be allowed to preach. While Tennent was immediately and nearly unanimously condemned by the established clergy, Whitefield picked up the theme and began to use it regularly in his 1740-1741 preaching tour, pushing the message deep into the Colonial psyche. Whitefield’s call for religious freedom from the hierarchical structure of denominational leadership and parish loyalties resonated with his colonial audiences.

His life and his message provided some measure of resolution to the growing colonial tensions between the leaders of mercantile economy rooted in individual enterprise versus inherited social power of the socio-political system. This was particularly true in New England, where community leadership was contingent upon denominational church leadership—often making the minister the most powerful leader in town, but also resonated in more religiously tolerant communities such as the Delaware River Valley.

The tension only grew as a growing band of itinerant and uncredentialed Whitefield imitators began “invading” staid parishes preaching Whitefield’s emotional and theatrical revival message. The wildest of these, such as Yale graduate James Davenport (1716–1757), began to give the leaders of the Awakening, known as “New Lights,” more trouble than their enemies. No sooner had Whitefield sailed for England than the enemies of the Awakening (and defenders of the old social order), known as “Old Lights,” launched a counter-offensive to restore the status quo.  The faculties of Harvard and Yale denounced both the Awakening in general and Whitefield in particular. Charles Chauncy, Boston’s most influential clergyman (and later president of Harvard), published his Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against (1742) as a treatise against the excessive emotional displays of revivals.

Eventually, even Edwards had to speak out against the excesses of the revival. In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1742), Edwards declared Satan the winner of the Awakening due to the New England clergy’s inability to lead their flocks out of wildfire and into love of God and sacrificial love of others.  This was perhaps Edwards’ most enduring legacy. While, Faithful Narrative would define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion and firmly establish Edwards as the revival expert with broad readership for his future publications, it was his 1746 publication of Religious Affections (and his 1749 popularization of his views on his more balanced view of revivalism in The Life of David Brainerd) that would lay the groundwork for a profoundly influential evangelical protestant movement in America. Noll (2003) asserts that the Great Awakening “marked the beginning of a distinctly evangelical history” marked by a “consistent pattern of convictions and attitudes that have been maintained over the centuries since” (p. 80, 18-19).

Lasting Influence

It is not obvious if the exact term, “Great Awakening,” was used before Joseph Tracy in 1842, causing some (Butler, 1982; Lambert, 1999) to assert that the Great Awakening itself was merely the invention of historians. Even those who accept the event at face value often grapple with the meaning of those few short years of American history. Kidd (2007) argues that the division of the dynamic evangelical movement into two distinguishable parts may only “obscure the fact that the evangelical movement continued to develop after 1743 and before 1800” (p. xix).  Stout (1977, 1991) argues what while the Awakening itself was more than a historical invention, clearly there was an inventive sense to Whitefield and Seward’s promotional approach (and to some degree Edwards’ rush to publicize the short-lived work of God in Northampton).

Beyond their religious significance, Whitefield’s radical innovations in communication and publicity provided the rhetoric through which republican ideas could be conveyed to an unlettered audience. This style endured, even if the Awakening did not, and became a growing influence in the mode of persuasion of the American Revolution and modern mass communication (Woods, Stout). One school of thought (Heimert, 1966; Mahaffey 2007, 2011) holds that the Awakening’s impact upon the Revolution extended far beyond communication and into the foundational ideas of democracy and nation building, and “provided pre-Revolutionary America with a radical, even democratic, social and political ideology, and evangelical religion embodied, and inspired, a thrust toward American nationalism” (Heimert, viii). By linking the choice of new birth with his audience’s choice of a new American identity, Whitefield provided a common American experience that unified diverse colonists who lacked a common identity. “Without George Whitefield […] American independence would have come much later, if at all” (Mahaffey, 2011, xi).

Gary David Stratton (Ph.D. Biola University) is University Professor of Cultural and Spiritual Formation and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johnson University (TN). James L. Gorman (Ph.D. Baylor University) is Assistant Professor of History at Johnson University. Based upon Stratton and Gorman’s “The Great Awakening [1730s to 1740s]” in the forthcoming “Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

See also

The Second Great Awakening: From Rural Revival to National Social Movement Revival and Moral Philosophy:  A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’? What does the University of Tennessee have to do with Prayer?

References

Butler, Jon. 1982. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fictions” Journal of American History: 305-325 Crawford Michael J. 1991. Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Edwards, Jonathan, and C C. Goen. 1972. The Great Awakening: A Faithful Narrative. the Distinguishing Marks. Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Letters Relating to the Revival. New Haven: Yale University Press. Heimert, Alan. 1996. Religion and the American Mind, from the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Kidd, Thomas S. 2007. The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press. Lambert, Frank. 1999. Inventing the “Great Awakening”. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Mahaffey, Jerome D. 2007. Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation. Waco: Baylor University Press. ________________ 2011. The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press. Marsden, George M. 2003. Jonathan Edwards: a Life. New Haven: Yale University Press. Noll, Mark A. 2003. The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press. Stout, Harry S. 1977.  “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 34: 519-41; reprinted in Butler and Stout, Religion in American History: A Reader 89-108. ___________ .1991. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Wood, Gordon. 1997. “Religion and the American Revolution,” in Stout, Harry S., and D. G. Hart. Eds. New Directions in American Religious History. New York: Oxford University Press.